Planet of the Apes (1968)

Every so often, we run into a classic film that has aged really, really badly. My wife confided that she wasn’t looking forward to sitting through this again. I said she’d enjoy the location filming. Turns out that was my favorite part as well.

One of the earlier drafts of Apes was written by Rod Serling, and I suspect my favorite scene in the film had a lot of his hand in it. It’s when they’re stomping across the desert and Charlton Heston’s character starts needling Robert Gunner’s, poking him about why he volunteered for this mission. It’s a good scene that underscores Heston’s cynicism and ends up informing his rash actions later in the film’s interminably long second act. Yes, the movie hits its peak for me before any apes show up.

Once we get into the ape city, there are little moments here and there, like the casual cruelty of the gorilla guards, that bring a little life to a long, long slog. I think the most interesting stuff is the material we don’t see. Throughout, we gradually realize that Maurice Evans’ Dr. Zaius, and by extension all the orangutans, know a heck of a lot more about their past than they want anybody else to know, and are covering up the truth. Governments are damn near always this way, but since this was made in the summer of 1967, it feels almost like 20th Century Fox knew Nixon was gonna get elected eighteen months later. The best single line in the film for me is Taylor reminding one of his chimpanzee friends to not trust anyone over thirty.

Overall, it just felt like a slog waiting to get to the punch line, and all the best moments are in the Grand Canyon and on that California beach. Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, and Roddy McDowall are very entertaining to watch, but I guess I’ve never really enjoyed this franchise very much. Maybe the first of the sequels was the best; I remember it that way anyhow. When we were young, one of the local UHF channels – probably WANX, later WGNX – would have an annual Apes marathon, beefed up with compilations made from the TV show with Ron Harper and James Naughton, and I’d watch them in the same disinterested way I would watch westerns when there was nothing else on.

Our son, for whom I’m writing this blog, was not impressed. I sold it to him as a classic and he usually buys my lines, but not this time. The famous ending landed with a shrug, and he said, not unreasonably, that he had a pretty good idea this was coming.

So to illustrate my point that no, this film really was an influential classic, I pulled up an episode of Jack of All Trades that we watched in the spring that ended with Verne Troyer doing his best Heston and pounding the sand. He enjoyed the lampoon and the reminder of a silly favorite more than the original, though.

Even Sid and Marty Krofft were paying attention at certain moments.

Batman 2.32 – The Duo is Slumming

It’s a real shame that this story is such a turkey. It’s another case of the comedy flopping badly, with serious situations undermined by material that isn’t clever or witty, just dumb. When Santa Claus shows up during the Batclimb – this was first shown three days before Christmas – Adam West even talks directly to the camera, and the kids in the audience. And it’s a real shame, since Maurice Evans is such a great actor, and I really like the Puzzler’s costume. This should have been better.

In a really odd coincidence, since the TV producers found themselves in need of a replacement Riddler, a character who was in every way a substitute for that character had been introduced in the funnybooks earlier in the year. In Detective Comics # 351, cover-dated May 1966, the Dynamic Duo met a new villain called Cluemaster. Even the fictional characters have since commented how Cluemaster is just a bargain-basement Riddler clone. I’ve often wondered why the TV people didn’t use that character instead of Puzzler.

(Incidentally, there was a one-off Superman villain called Puzzler who appeared in an issue of Action Comics in 1942, but it’s really stretching credibility to suggest that Maurice Evans is really meant to be playing that character. No, I believe this guy was intended as an original creation, and the similar name is just a coincidence.)

Daniel was not interested in either the puzzles aspect or the aviation aspect or the Shakespeare aspect of the character, but he did like that the baddie is operating out of a balloon factory. His favorite moment of the production came when Puzzler and his henchmen make their getaway under cover of a thousand balloons that drop from the ceiling. He liked the fights a lot, too. The climactic one takes place in a hangar, fighting on and around a private jet. At one point, Robin ends up shoved into one of the engines. That’s something you don’t see every day.

(No, the engines aren’t on. That was an episode of Firefly. Geez.)

Batman 2.31 – The Puzzles are Coming

Almost fifty years on since the advent of color television and some things about TV drama have not changed. Sure, producers make six or eight fewer episodes a season, down from thirty back in the 1960s, and the episodes are seven or eight minutes shorter, and they have much larger casts so more material in different sets can be shot in a day, and they run new episodes all the way into May when they finished in March back then, but there have always been actors who are, to put it bluntly, insufferable prima donnas with very high opinions about their importance. And it’s because Frank Gorshin was one that we have this very odd episode with Maurice Evans as the villain.

During the first two seasons of Batman, the special guest villains received a flat fee of $1250 for each half-hour installment, or $2500 an hour – $18,460 in today’s currency, which isn’t chicken feed. (I really do not know what an actor may receive for a similar role on a network drama today, but these articles suggest that it would be less than $18,000, although there may be opportunities for residuals today that did not exist in the 1960s.) Batman‘s first season of 17 hours saw Gorshin appear as the Riddler four times. You might argue that the show made Gorshin a star – it certainly increased his audiences in Las Vegas, and netted him some late-night and variety show gigs – or you might argue, as Gorshin did, that it was he who made Batman a hit.

And so Gorshin said that he’d like more than $2500 per hour to come back, and the producers said, “We’ll have a couple of scripts ready for you when you come to your senses.”

But by December, the ratings were slipping, the shine had gone off. The constant stream of one-off guest villains proved, to my eyes, quite surprisingly entertaining, but audiences were getting bored. So the producers dusted off one of their two Riddler scripts, cast Maurice Evans in the part, rewrote it slightly to add some Shakespeare references, since Evans was renowned for his many stage and screen performances in Shakespeare plays, gave him an eccentric, foppish costume, called him the Puzzler, and said “Gorshin, see, we don’t need you,” hoping desperately that Gorshin would blink and come running.

One bizarre fumble came from one of the rewrites. Puzzler is clearly known to the police and to Batman as they discuss him, but when they confront the criminal and try to warn the monopoly-obsessed billionaire Artemis Knab away from his business scheme, Puzzler acts like he’s never met the heroes before. When you’re rushing to shoot thirty hours of drama in just seven months, mistakes will be made.